Exhibition review: SIXTY

Touring exhibition of ceramics offers snapshot, rather than focusing on chronicling history.
exhibition ceramics at Cairns Art Gallery

Studio ceramics have become a tour de force in recent years. In fact they always were, but just fell out of mainstream fashion for a while. Regardless of the rigours that fresh contemporary lens may add to the medium today, the need to look back as well as forward, is always present.

SIXTY is a touring exhibition that takes a discrete, but broad look at Australian ceramics practice through the lens of the print publication, The Journal of Australian Ceramics (JAC), on the occasion of its 60th Anniversary (1962-2022).

Formerly published under the title Pottery in Australia, the journal is more than a magazine; it is a community – a place for sharing, for learning and for celebrating. As one exhibiting artist explained, it is more like a recipe book that finds its way from studio to studio with hand written notes added and stains from globs of clay leaving their mark.

Organised by the Australian Design Centre (ADC) – and currently on show at Cairns Art Gallery, where it was viewed by ArtsHub – the exhibition surprisingly only reaches back to 2015 with a signature blue and white pot by SA artist Gerry Wedd, and then works across a roll call of makers and potters, with most works made in the past 12-months.

The exhibition reads as a snapshot of making now rather than what we might expect of a 60th anniversary show – in fact, half the artists included in this exhibition weren’t even at art school in the sixties when the magazine’s maiden issue was released, let alone solidly in a studio practice.

While on first glance that might feel like a flaw when viewing this exhibition, given its anniversary platform, the history is in the makers themselves and their trajectory of shared learning rather than the physical works – aka sixty year old pots.

This is the point of difference with the exhaustive exhibition Clay Dynasty, presented at the same time at Powerhouse Museum, and on the radar of all in the potter community.

While the two have different agendas and scales, SIXTY feels a little like an opportunity lost with some obvious omissions, and one that has possibly been restricted by its touring ambitions, having to travel to 16 art centres across Australia from 2022 to 2026 – and fair enough.

There is however, great depth within that ‘snapshot’ community of artists shown here – potters such as Greg Daly (NSW) who has been a member of the International Academy of Ceramics (Geneva) since 1986; Pippin Drysdale (WA) a ceramic artist with a practice spanning more than 50 years; Patsy Hely (ACT) who has taught and made since the mid 70s influencing a next generation; Jeffery Mincham AM (SA) with over forty years professional practice; Ben Richardson (TAS) who studied ceramics in the 70s and is known for his wood firing techniques, as well as Owen Rye (VIC), known internationally for being at the forefront of the contemporary woodfiring movement.

22 artists comprise this exhibition, in a sweep across varying scales, techniques and aesthetics – what could only be described as truly JAC in that egalitarian tone across age, location and career stages.

What unifies them visually is their presentation on custom-made, geometric pedestals and vitrines in a bold mid blue colour, designed by Studio Garbett. It is a far cry from earthy tones and knitted sweaters associated with the ‘potter’s movement’ of yesteryear. But does it work as a curatorial device? I’m undecided. 

Installation view Pipin Drysdale’s work in the touring exhibition SIXTY. Photo ArtsHub

For the softer works, they disrupt the viewing experience, such as Mincham’s Gales of the Equinox (2021) and Early Morning Mist Clearing To Fine (2021). The blue pedestals compete too strongly. Similarly for Queensland artist Shannon Garson’s porcelain panel drawings and Kirsten Coelho’s subtle works.

A strength of the exhibition are the number of wall mounted ceramic artworks, from Honour Freeman to Jane Sawyer’s red earthenware ribbons, to Tania Rollonds’ pieces which add a dynamic element to the exhibition and push viewer’s understandings of the material practice.

First Nations ceramicists are represented through the works of Alison Milyika Carroll and Penny Evans. While Carroll has been absolutely pivotal in the development of Indigenous ceramics (along with her late husband Kunmanara (Pepai) Carroll (c.1950-2021) with Ernabella Arts ceramic studio, it feels like more weight could have been given to this contribution to the past sixty years of ceramics in Australia – I am thinking of the Hermannsberg Potters with their 30-year legacy, and the deeply celebrated Thancoupie Gloria Fletcher James AO (1937–2011), who is widely credited as the founder of the Indigenous ceramics movement in Australia.

It equally feels odd that Les Blakebrough and Gwyn Hanson Piggott are not part of this conversation – given that JAC was all about sharing, learning, and community. Indeed, Ben Richardson was deeply influences by them both, and Damon Moon talks in the exhibition’s promo video about the grouping of works by Gwen Hanson Piggot, and its impact on the ceramics community, still seen today.

Moon grew up with the magazine bumping around his father, potter Milton Moon’s studio (also omitted from the show).

One has to remember SIXTY comes from the ‘pages’ of history, not an actual chronological view of the medium’s development. This is perhaps best describes in the work of Glenn Barkley, with its own custom pedestal plastered with collaged magazine image from the journal. He speaks of the impact his mother-in-law, production potter Lyn Havilah, had on his practice.

‘She always had TACA journals laying around that I used to read. I’m going to make a plinth of these journals as they are kind of the bedrock of mine, and many others practice, and keeps you propped up and supported to a certain extent,’ explains Barkley. His large pot additionally incorporates some materials found in Havilah’s studio.

The inclusion of Barkley without ceramicists such as Lynda Draper, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Jenny Orchard, or the earthy works of Merran Esson and Angela Valamanesh, Steve Harrison – to name but a few – also makes this exhibition feel patchy.

One starts to wonder why such omissions? Searching for more context on the curator’s selection I visited the exhibition’s web page, which is rich in individual artists statements. It adds that narrative that the exhibition somehow seems to lack. This is especially felt, given that JAC is a platform for sharing stories and knowledge.

The influences of Japan and English schools on the Australian community, and then the influence of artists who migrated to Australia bringing their ceramic history with them – Vipoo Srivilasa (VIC) is a Thai-born artist and Kenji Uranishi (QLD) – also hold a place in this touring exhibition.

While Dan Elborne (VIC) Susan Frost (SA) Tania Rollond (NSW) are the newest to the medium, and along with Yul Scarf (NSW), are more motivated by clay as a medium for political conversations.

In summary, while a mere snapshot of ceramic practice today – it is bloody fantastic for what it delivers in its touring portal – it is ambitious and broad.

Where this project gets it totally right is that lovely little video that has been produced with a whole community of potters sharing their stories of JAC. It captures that very egalitarian spirit of community that is this magazine.

Vicki Grima publisher of JAC, says of the magazine – both past and present – ‘it belongs to the whole ceramics community; they have a feeling that they see themselves in it – it’s about them; it’s by them; it’s for them.’

Definitely work a look to feel inspired.

Cairns Art Gallery

Until 11 December, then touring

To view the schedule of tour dates and venues.

Exhibiting artists: Glenn Barkley | Alison Milyika Carroll | Kirsten Coelho | Greg Daly | Pippin Drysdale | Dan Elborne | Penny Evans | Honor Freeman | Susan Frost | Shannon Garson | Patsy Hely | Jeffery Mincham | Damon Moon | David Ray | Ben Richardson | Tania Rollond | Owen Rye | Jane Sawyer | Yul Scarf | Vipoo Srivilasa | Kenji Uranishi | Gerry Wedd

Guest curated by Anna Grigson and Lisa Cahill (Australian Design Centre) with design by Studio Garbett. Presented in partnership with The Australian Ceramics Association.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina